Thursday, March 25, 2010

The WSJ's New & Unconventional Take On Beat Writers

Via Baseball Think Factory, the Wall Street Journal is adding a fleet of so-called beat reporters to cover the major New York sports teams.
The Journal’s New York sports section will assign beat reporters to the major local sports teams, including the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants and the Knicks, sources said. They’ll be credentialed for home games, and they’ll travel to road games.
However, they won't be functioning like regular beat writers:
Sources familiar with the plans said that The Journal will not be covering games in the way that, say, the tabloids do. Instead of rehashing what happened the night before, the Journal sportswriters will be looking for news features and interesting stories from within the locker room.

That would, of course, fit it nicely in competition with — who else? — The Times.

Whereas the News and the Post continue to cover games as if it were 1998—and God bless them for it!—The Times has changed its focus over the past year. Tom Jolly, The Times’ sports editor, has put more of an emphasis on features and trend stories rather than demanding that beat reporters stay with a team every waking moment.
To their credit, the WSJ is providing their staff with the same level of access to the team as other papers, but not the same burdens of reporting every bit of the day-to-day minutiae.

There are a lot of guys on the Yankee beat right now. Fewer than there were, but probably more than there need to be. Not to say that any individual paper should discontinue its daily coverage, but if you read multiple beat writer's blogs, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between them*.

*For instance, the news Chad Gaudin being unconditionally released this morning first came from this tweet from Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger. Soon after, Brian Hoch reported the same thing on Twitter, as did Mark Feinsand. Within a half hour, MLB Trade Rumors was linking back to Carig, Hoch put up on an article on, River Ave. Blues had the news, and Chad Jennings was reporting Gaudin's departure. About an hour and a half later, an AP story showed up on Carig's blog, Jennings had audio from Gaudin, and within two hours, Craig Calcaterra noted it at NBC Sports.

Essentially, the marginal gains a fan gets from following each additional beat writer are hardly worth the effort of reading them. For even a die-hard fan to read (or just skim) the same things in several different places over and over again seems grossly inefficient, especially when you consider that each individual beat writer is going to pick up the most important bits of information for you soon enough.

While it makes sense for papers that already have beat writers to keep them, it would be foolish for an outlet looking to stick its foot in the door to do so via a traditional beat writer.

Not many media companies could afford to pay someone to travel with a team without the expectation that they will provide thorough day-to-day coverage of it. In the days of fuzzy online revenue streams, it might be difficult to tell whether or not the expenditure is justified. The WSJ, however, is willing to take that chance.

Like Bloomberg Sports, this is another example of a financially-focused company allocating a relatively small amount of resources for a sports-related venture. Each appears to have somewhat limited upside when compared to the company's primary focuses, but both BBG and WSJ seem to be applying the practices that made them successful in other arenas to what they are doing in sports. Bloomberg is providing intuitive software for baseball analysis and the WSJ is offering companion-style reading for New York area teams.

By allowing its writers to stay close to the team but focus on producing news features and more substantial analytical pieces, The Journal has created a position with the daily access of a beat writer but the writing requirements of a columnist. By going for exclusive, high quality stories they are aiming for the kind of content that might be of interest to those who aren't fans of the specific team they cover. It seems like a best-of-both-worlds type of arrangement, but it will be up to each writer to deliver top notch content and validate those theories.

The Journal has been producing quality sports content for a while, but they have it stashed away two clicks removed from the homepage under the Life & Style tab. Now, it would appear, they are making a more serious foray into the New York sports media landscape. And by eschewing the traditional expectations of a beat writer, it seems they are on the right track.

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